“Why is patience so important?” “Because it makes us pay attention.” ― Paulo Coelho
It’s that time of year again! … Spring is here. The hormones have kicked in. Get Ready.
Many of you know the scenario: One day your affectionate parrot is a content, happy member of your family, and the next minute he or she is acting like a psychotic monster attacking everyone and everything! Hormones are on the rise, feathers are flying, and beaks are gnashing!
These Jekyll and Hyde personality changes are often due to “mating” season (AKA Spring to us humans). Bird hormones tend to kick into high gear as their bodies prepare for ‘breeding season’. Don’t be mad at your feathered friend. They can’t help it, and their behavior only serves a greater purpose for them in the wild: Hormones dictate breeding success in birds.
Some animals produce more offspring than others. Hormones like prolactin and corticosterone can exercise a crucial influence on the behaviour of birds in the breeding season and therefore on their reproductive success. ~ Princeton University researchers
In the world of birds, the arrival of Spring means one very important thing: it’s time to get their bird breeding on! Mating is how their species survives! So strap on your patience pants, and maybe a harness for yourself, because this is most likely going to be a bumpy ride!
For many parrot guardians this is a very trying time of year. Here’s are two things that you can do to get through this without losing your mind – or a finger: be patient and compassionate. This is a difficult time for your feathered friend as well. Their hormones are changing to prepare for breeding. This affects their bodies, and their moods. Remember how awful your hormonal years were?? These changes can make them more irritable. You can expect more screaming, biting, more destruction, and more unpredictable mood swings. Again, you must be patient; this won’t last forever. It will get better if you know how to help them.
Read on to discover some of the common signs of hormonal behavior in birds, and how to help your feathered friend cope with these hormone surges, so you can have a safer, healthier home environment.
It’s very important to recognize the signs and symptoms of a hormonal parrot, so we don’t merely label them as “crazy” or “mean”. Remember that every behavior serves a purpose to that animal. It’s up to us as their guardians to be the detective and help them cope in our human world.
What To Look For:
• Eye pinning (pupils dilating and constricting)
• Wing flapping
• Tail fanning
• Trembling, with wings dropped low in a ‘begging’ posture (he/she is asking you to feed him as a mate)
• Panting when touched outside of the head and neck area
• Regurgitating for you or for his/her toys
• Increased appetite
• Lifting the vent while cuddling (if female)
• Mounting your hand by gripping your thumb (if male)
• Head-bobbing, hopping/bouncing, or making ‘heart wings’ for you
• Plucking or barbering feathers
• Territoriality over the cage, room, you, or a family member
• Excess aggression; including biting, screaming, and beak-bashing
Hormones (triggered by weather changes, increased daylight hours and a variety of other factors) start coursing through the blood stream bringing about chemical changes in the body and some pretty odd behaviors.
Other companion Bird Hormone Surge signs to be aware of:
Please note: “Serious physical and psychological problems can develop if pet birds remain in reproductive hormone behavior for prolonged periods. Such birds are considered to be in chronic reproductive status (CRS), and owners should seek the assistance of their avian veterinarian and/or a parrot behavior consultant to help resolve this situation.”
Building Trust, Creating Cooperation, and Reducing Aggression at Any Age
Even a five year old can teach an animal not to bite. This well documented video shows a very young boy teaching the family parrot how to feel safe around him, which results in the parrot no longer biting him.
What makes this video so amazing (and why reward-based training should be the goal when working with any animal in our home, or in a captive environment) is the safe, slow, and steady progress you see without using force, punishment, or intimidation. Perle, the parrot was asked to participate in every step. She was never forced to participate. Perle was given choices. She was able to decided what she felt comfortable with in every step; this allowed her to have control over her environment, which increased her trust and helped her to feel more secure around Noah.
You’ll also notice a bonus to taking the positive reinforcement training route: the boy and the parrot gained a relationship based on trust and respect. They had finally created a clear, open, and honest dialogue. They were communicating together, in a new language they could both understand! If the boy and the parrot continue this kind of safe interaction and positive training, they will continue to build their relationship together, because they will both learn to trust one another much more deeply.
This video is one of the best examples of what we must ask ourselves: Why force an animal to do something out of fear or intimidation when you can just ask them calmly?
Force-free training is not a fad; it’s based on decades of research and science. These positive methods are what many professional animal trainers have been trying to teach the public (and fellow “old school” trainers) for years. Thankfully, we are now seeing it being used with almost every species, and now in our homes! These training methods work on cats, rats, dogs, horses, pigs, ferrets, and every animal in between!
With the right tools, patience, and determination, we are all capable of making positive impacts and lasting improvements with the animals that we share our homes with. We can do this without fear, force, or intimidation. Our children can, and should, be a part of this process. We can teach children safe boundaries with our pets, while helping them to increase their trust, and to help the animal to learn to trust as well. This is how we build long lasting bonds for life!
If you are interested in learning how to using these methods in your home or at your facility, please check out Steve Martin’s workshops. He was one of my greatest animal training mentors and teachers. His training skills, and compassion for people and parrots are recognized and respected all over the world.
Truth: Animal bites are provoked in some form, and they can be prevented.
When I think of common animal bites, three companion animals first come to mind: dogs, parrots, and cats. All three of these are social animals. Why does this fact matter? Well, social animals use very clear cues to communicate with each other and they know how to read and respond to these very subtle cues within their groups.
Now let’s look at humans. We are very demonstrative when we are speaking with each other and even when thinking silently to ourselves. We flail our arms around, we grandly gesture, and the more animated characters in our species have very expressive features on our faces. Now think about a cat, a horse, a rabbit, a parrot, a fish, a tortoise, or even a snake. Their facial expressions are not designed the ways ours are. They appear to not be as expressive as humans, but they are quote communicative. And their species’ form of communication is exceptional amongst themselves.
Each animal’s body language is explicitly clear within the individual species. Each species has evolved to learn how to communicate with exquisite precision, each in their own unique way, without having to be loud and demonstrative. As humans, we often fail to understand their communication.
Communication is Key.
Many of the species that I studied, bred, and trained at The Audubon Nature Institute were the same way. They used very subtle communication with each other and with the people who cared for them. When I first started working at Audubon I quickly learned about a common saying that I still practice and believe: “If you get bitten, it’s always your fault”. That was a tough truth pill to swallow when I first started began my career there. I didn’t understand how that could be true. There were so many animals and so many different behaviors to learn! How could I learn them all and prevent getting bitten? Two words: Education and Observation. I had to learn how to speak their language by observing them.
Over the decade that I was there I was fortunate to have worked with some of the most amazing and incredibly intelligent species on the planet. Many of these animals could bite, scratch, stomp, kick, or gore you, if they were having a bad day.
It was our job as zoo keepers and public educators to keep ourselves safe, the animals safe, and the public that was interacting with the animal safe. We did this by educating ourselves about each species that was under our supervision and care. We took the time to learn about their natural behaviors in the wild. We learned how they tend to behave in captive environments. We learned how they reacted in certain situations, and with certain people. We knew their limits. We knew their individual triggers. We knew their boundaries. Knowing all of this was vital to keeping everyone safe. It was the responsible and ethical thing to do.
Safety in Your Home
I truly believe that this kind of education should not end at at a professional animal care facility. This should be happening in every home that has an animal and especially in homes with multiple pets or children. I find it incredible that so many people love all sorts of companion animals, but they invite them into their home without doing research first. Many people love their animals but don’t understand how to read the subtle signals and behaviors of their animal companions. When this happens, scratches, bites, and severe injuries occur.
At a recent dog safety workshop someone asked me, “But don’t some of these animal “attacks” happen out of the blue?” My answer was simply,”no.”
And here is why: It’s very dangerous to our community to say that bites are random occurrences. If there isn’t an actual stimulus triggering the aggressive behavior, then how can we prevent it? We can prevent bites, because animal bites happen in response to something that triggered the bite; knowing and understanding this is what helps us understand animal behavior.
Awareness Facilitates Understanding about Aggression.
It’s helpful to know that most forms of aggression, except for predation, are distance-increasing behaviors (the animal is attempting to actively increase the distance between itself and the stimulus/stressor). Think about when an animal lunges at you, this behavior will increase the distance between you and the animal nearly 100 percent of the time. Animals do this because they know it works.
Very often, bites are a last resort for animals. Bites often happen when all of the other cues the animal has given are unknowingly ignored. The Ladder of Aggression helps to explain how aggression can stem from various stressors.
Bites Do Not Occur “Out of the Blue”.
Animal bites are never a random occurrence. Often there are conditions in the animal’s environment that have continued to “stack up” and set the scene for a bite to occur. This is known as Trigger Stacking.
This happens when multiple “triggers” (stressors unique to the individual animal) happen close together, or at the same time. When these triggers stack up they can have a cumulative negative effect on the animal. Stress hormones can create a cluster effect of reactivity, causing the animal to behave in a way that he/she normally would not. This can quickly escalate into a dangerous situation.
Prevention and Awareness Are Necessary.
Make no mistake about it. Bites can be prevented. It’s up to each of us to learn the unique signals and respect the boundaries of our animal companions, or the animals that we are working with.
Assuming that animal bites are random can lead to more unfortunate and often fatal incidences, as we are sadly seeing in the news. The cat that “bit for no reason” probably gave the person at least 6 different signals that a bite would happen if they continued doing what they were doing. That parrot that “randomly bit” also gave a clear warning. The dog that bit a person or another dog “out of the blue” gave off a number of red flags well before the bite happened, or they were neck deep in their own personal nightmare of stress hormones and Trigger Stacking!
There ARE signals. There are ample warnings. They may be subtle, but they are there. I assure you.
Every species is unique and has a unique way of communicating. Every animal within that species has its personal boundaries and individual triggers (just like we do), so it’s up to us as animal guardians to know these individual boundaries and signals. It’s how we keep them safe, keep ourselves safe, and keep other people and animals safe.
Despite what we often may think, animals are pretty complex creatures. They speak a different language than we do, they have quirks in their personalities that can make them quite unusual sometimes (like us humans) and they often display anxiety and discomfort in ways we don’t.
Respect Their Boundaries.
Being safe around animals is not something that comes naturally to most animal lovers. It’s natural to want to give love and affection to them, and to receive it from them, but doing this safely has to be taught and learned. I had to learn how to practice restraint, while recognizing the animals’ clear boundaries. Over the decade that I worked at the zoo, I worked with crocodiles that would love to add you to their menu, king cobras that could outwit you, feisty donkeys that patiently waited to chomp you, lions that would love to maim you, and hormonal parrots that enjoyed taunting you.
Out of the countless encounters that I had with hundreds of exotic animals, I was bitten five times. Each of them was a nasty bite, but I never blamed the animal; each one of those bites was my fault. Three of the bites were food related (I got in the way of their food, or they confused me for food). One bite was a defensive bite during breeding (they were getting their groove on and I accidentally intruded). The other bite was redirected aggression at another animal and my hand was in direct-line-of-bite. I can create all the excuses that I want, but I could have prevented ALL of them.
Learn and Grow.
Taking responsibility for these kind of common mistakes can only make us better animal guardians, animal trainers, and animal stewards. There’s no need to feel bad or guilty about it; we just have to learn from the bite so we can help to educate our friends, family, and colleagues on how to prevent it! Judgement and guilt have no part in learning from our mistakes. We live and learn. We then teach others.
Becoming a Conscious Companion
If you are reading this, I can assume that you love the animals that you share your life with enough to be inspired or learn more to improve their lives. I encourage you to take that love and funnel it into educating yourself, and your family and friends about the basic behavior of the species that you work with, live with, and adore. Every day I challenge myself to learn something new about the animals I love and live with. I hope you do the same.
“I am who I am today because of the mistakes I made yesterday.” ― The Prolific Penman